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2015 Innovators Awards

Getting Smart About Business Intelligence

Wright State University revamped its approach to data and built a self-service BI tool that puts powerful drill-down capabilities in the hands of users across the university.

2015 Campus Technology Innovators Awards

Category: Administrative Systems

Institution: Wright State University

Project: Strategic Information and Business Intelligence

Project lead: Sasanka Prabhala, executive director for strategic information and business intelligence

Tech vendor/partner: IBM

Wright State University

Wright State's BI team (left to right): Steve Hayward, Craig Woolley, Roy Lemaster, Aaron Skira, Mark Polatajko and Sasanka Prabhala (photo courtesy of Wright State University)

For any college or university that has experienced the challenge of implementing a campuswide business intelligence (BI) initiative, the experience of Wright State University (OH) should be an inspiration and a reminder not to give up too easily.

Five years ago, Wright State made investments in an enterprise data warehouse, operational data store and the Cognos reporting tool from IBM. But the technology's potential was never fully realized. Cognos ended up being used as a static reporting mechanism, meeting various state reporting obligations as well as some day-to-day reporting needs of the university — but not operating as a true BI tool.

Then in 2013, Wright State began transforming its budget model to one that emphasized entrepreneurialism and innovation, and the need for BI tools became more pressing. "We realized that in order for that model to be successful at the unit level, we needed to provide the tools for people in a self-service approach," said Mark Polatajko, vice president for business and finance and chief financial officer for the university. "We realized that this underutilization was driving the manner in which we work. We have a lot of analysts' time and effort focused on the compilation and development of reporting instead of the value-added aspect of emphasizing analytics."

Sasanka Prabhala, executive director for strategic information and business intelligence, was charged with leading a project to re-envision how the BI tools could be used.

Prabhala said it was obvious that the problem was not with the Cognos product itself. "The tool is powerful enough to do everything we wanted it to do. We needed to buy some more modules to do more advanced analyses, but from a tool standpoint, it is powerful. It had just been underutilized. But by taking a more disciplined and user-centered design approach, we knew we could provide easy, on-demand access."

The first step, a gap analysis, found several problems that had to be addressed, he said. First, users were frustrated with errors due to inconsistent report setups. Reports created to analyze similar information could bring back very different results because they used different underlying algorithms that are not transparent to the user. Users also felt an urgency to get the data, yet they were dependent on Wright State's limited number of data specialists for help. That increased the workload of the data specialists and slowed the turnaround time for data-related requests. Frustrated by these roadblocks, users often created their own databases — essentially Excel files housed on their computer desktops. A significant amount of time and energy was spent on maintaining these databases rather than performing data analyses.

"We realized that it is crucial that this be self-service," Prabhala said. "More importantly, you have everyone looking at a single version of the truth."

Following a thorough assessment of user needs and technology capabilities, Prabhala and his team identified three focus areas (student, finance and human resources); four key performance indicators (KPIs) for each of the focus areas; and the corresponding attributes for each of the KPIs. For example, the KPIs for the student focus area are application, enrollment, retention and graduation.
For an initial pilot, the BI team worked with leadership from the college of business, college of engineering, institutional research and enrollment management. "We quickly realized there was a lot of momentum and others wanted to jump on board as quickly as possible, so it was sort of a self-fueling fire," Polatajko said.

Once the results of the pilot were shared with the council of deans and the cabinet, the project team decided it was time to broaden the scope across the university and emphasize development of key dashboards and analytics with data-mining capabilities.

Working on data integrity issues was one key to success, Prabhala noted. "Every organization has issues with data that is either not being captured or is being captured in ways that don't make sense. But we often don't know where [the gaps] are. It is difficult to figure out where the data gaps are. We are providing this drill-down capability that allows you to start at a high level and drill down to very fine level of abstraction, from the college level on down." If a user sees an error, such as a business student listed in the college of engineering, that person has the capability to go into the source systems and make changes, and the operational data store is updated immediately.

The student data version is going live in August; the finance module will be available by the end of 2015; and the human resources module early next year. "Right now we are in the midst of the communication and training plan," Polatajko said. We have people signed up for a dozen training sessions so they will be ready to go."

Another key, Prabhala said, was taking a user-centered design approach. "We wanted to make sure the learning curve is not steep, and that the look and feel is consistent across all three usage areas," he explained. "If you know how to interact with the student focus area, it is the same in HR or finance."

The Wright State executives see the BI initiative a foundational building block that will allow them to do more advanced analyses and predictive modeling in the future. That has become increasingly important because Ohio is the first state in the U.S. for which 100 percent of its universities' funding formula is based on course completion and degree completion.

"Retention and getting people to the finish line is of the utmost importance, so we are aligning our activities, our data analytics and our systems in order to drive course completions, retention of students and degree completion," Polatajko said. "When we do that successfully, we are getting rewarded in terms of our share of the state operating funds we get to fund our activities. That is huge."

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